Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 9 News List

How the 'i' got into Apple, and government by crony

Have you ever wondered when people started putting a lowercase `i' in front of words and what it stood for? In that case, read on

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"After coming under withering criticism for cronyism," wrote the liberal Matthew Rothschild in The Progressive, "Bush turns around and appoints a crony to the Supreme Court." Despite disdain of the choice of Miers expressed by several prominent columnists on the right, the multimedia commentator Rush Limbaugh backed up the Bush nominee by attacking her detractors, headlining his Web site "Media Parrots Democrat `Crony' Talking Point." (Limbaugh construes "media" as singular.)

Recalling former president Lyndon Johnson's failed attempt to appoint his close friend Abe Fortas to be chief justice, James Rosen of The Sacramento Bee wrote that the Miers nomination "reignited an age-old US debate about cronyism in the White House." Because the old word now in play has a nice political resonance, let's look at its history. Samuel Pepys in his 1665 diary recorded a meeting with "my old school-fellow ... who was a great chrony of mine." An early lexicographer called the word "vox academica" -- college slang -- and the OED finds no connection to crone, "a withered old woman." Because the meaning of crony is "a friend of long standing," and the early spelling was chrony, my guess is that it may have been influenced by that Greek word for "time," root of "chronology."

Not speculation, however, is the etymology of the political attack phrase government by crony. On Feb. 9, 1946, the columnist Arthur Krock wrote in The Times: "During the Truman administration, New Dealers and Conservatives found themselves together in opposition to what a press-gallery wit has called a `government by crony."' He used that phrase in his headline. Soon afterward, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, an FDR holdover, resigned with a well-publicized blast at Truman: "I am against government by crony."

Before stepping into Krock's shoes as conservative Washington columnist at The Times, I wrote him in 1967 in my capacity as political lexicographer to see if he would reveal his anonymous source. "As I recall," my neighbor-to-be replied, "I was referring modestly to myself in that reference to `a press-gallery wit,' though I couldn't document that I am the originator. But I, too, have seen no previous use of the expression in the public prints."

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